Lessons to learn from California Student Strikes and Occupations
Lessons to learn from California Student Strikes and Occupations
“It almost feels like 1968 again” -San Francisco Chronicle
“This is the end of the beginning” – Anonymous Student Occupier
“We’re here to tell the regents that enough is enough.” – Gracelynne West, a senior at UC San Diego
On November 18th students from universities across California united with faculty and staff workers for a multi-day strike that reached national recognition. The action, quite possibly the most significant student action since the 60s and 70s, was the apex of months of organizing that began after Governor Schwarzenegger announced cuts to resolve a twenty-one billion dollar deficit in California’s budget. Students and workers under the University of California (UC) system faced continued budget cuts and job losses as well as an outlandish thirty-two percent tuition hike. Students throughout California at UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, San Francisco State University, City College of San Francisco, Napa Valley College, and CSU Fresno, have stood united with workers against budget cuts and the proposed 32% tuition hike, with reports of more campuses taking action coming in everyday. Students and youth from around the country will look at the events that have happened the past week in California, for a model as they seek to organize similar struggles on their own campuses.
The UC strikes and occupations present a significant moment in the history of the student/youth movement, but what is it that makes them so significant? Student occupations have occurred previously in the US as well as movements organizing against budget cuts and the economic crisis, but for students and youth, nothing has been as empowering that has reached such a high degree of national recognition then these recent actions in California. With one of the world’s largest economies and a Governor committed to cutting the deficit, California is the front line of resistance to budget cuts in education. It is expected that as the crisis continues and unemployment continues to rise, that other states will take on similar strategies for balancing their budgets.
Numbers and MilitancyThe actions of the past week have mobilized students in numbers not seen since the 60s. These actions developed out of a September 24th walkout (at left)of five-thousand students and workers on the campus of UC Berkeley as part of a statewide day of action including strikes and protests as well as the occupations of a building at UCSC. UC system schools came out strong in opposition to the pending tuition hikes at the start of the school year by organizing walkouts and strikes for the first day of classes in the UC system. These actions brought together faculty and staff workers and their unions (AFSCME, UC-AFT, CUE, PRO-UAW, and UPTE) and students interested in opposing budget cuts and privatization of public education. This coalition organized a statewide conference against budget cuts in public education held on October 24th. Coming out of these discussions was a call for a three day strike during the Regents meeting from November 18th – 20th setting off a month of organizing on campuses throughout the state.
Centered largely on the campuses of UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Davis, the actions of the past week have been both radicalizing and inspirational. Actions began on the 18th with a union strike and picket at UCLA in opposition to budget cuts and in support of the students who were taking to the streets that day. Fourteen people (12 students and 2 union organizers) were arrested at the meeting of the Regent’s finance committee as they stood up and challenged the 32% tuition hike singing, “We Shall Overcome”. Students had been gathered all day outside Covel Commons where the meeting was taking place with signs that read RIP Education, Take Back our University, Us: Public, Them: Private chanting, “Whose University? Our University!” and “They Say Cut Back we Say Fight Back!” Five-hundred steadily blocked Covel Commons throughout the day, reaching an estimated two-thousand at the crowd’s peak according to sources. UC Berkeley mobilized one-thousand students and workers for a rally in front of Sproul Hall, a historic point of protest in the 1960s (2009 at top, 1960 and right). The rally marched around campus forming picket lines and created a four-hundred person chain around Mrak Hall, the administration building. Students temporarily seized control of the architecture and engineering building on the UC Berkeley campus, but were not able to hold it over the long run. At San Francisco State University, students had a march and a sit in at their administration building. Five-hundred Students at the City College of San Francisco walked out of class, joining the other students in the protests. The vote of the regents finance committee to bring the thirty-two percent tuition hike before the full board of regents passed at around 1PM and set the stage for the next day.
Occupations: UCLA, UCSC, Berkeley, Davis
By the morning of Thursday the 19th, students had occupied Campbell Hall on the UCLA campus, renaming it Carter-Huggins hall after two Black Panthers murdered in the building in the sixties in a conflict provoked by police. Students had come in from around the state on buses paid for by unions to an event dubbed Crisis Fest – a music festival, discussion area, and tent city. Students were waking up to news reports of the previous day’s demonstrations, including reports of the use of Tasers on students, and other police violence. Students marched throughout the UCLA campus, traveling through buildings, blocking intersections, and eventually returning to Covel Commons, the place where the regents were meeting. Students at other locations were organizing demonstrations and actions in coordination with the events on the UCLA campus. At 1pm, it was confirmed that the UC regents body had approved the 32% tuition hike. Students immediately began assembling ways to keep the regents inside and prevent them from leaving the building. Students locked arms around the building, shutting off the exits (left top). Videos online show police behind steel barricades with Tasers and batons threatening and swinging at students. After police violence broke out, a break was in the crowd appeared and they began to escort the regents away to deafening chants of “Shame on You!” Students continued to confront the regents. They followed them to their cars, sat down around them, and blocked exits from the parking garage with a massive sit in (left bottom). In a gathering of several hundred people, students refused to move and would not provide an exit for the regents’ cars. Police were forced to take the regents off campus to secondary vehicles and were told to leave their cars in the garage.
By this time, students at UCSC had taken over the administration building on their campus, Kerr Hall (at left). With a force of about two-hundred, and an outside mobilization in support, and the Kresge town Hall still occupied, UCSC students seized the building and were able to hold it for several days. Hundreds of students at UC Davis demonstrated outside their administration building, Mrak Hall, and moved inside to occupy it before closing hours. Shortly after the occupation, a crowd of a hundred or so supporters began to gather outside. The Mrak hall occupation ended with the arrest of fifty-two people later that night. On the UC Berkeley campus, AFSCME workers organized a protest to the cuts of janitorial jobs calling on students to bring their trash to the entrance doors of California Hall, the UCB administration building (right). Students at UCLA marched to the Campbell Hall (renamed Carter-Huggins by its occupiers) to support and participate in the occupation. Those present voted to end the occupation after there was considerable division over the occupation and its relation to the larger struggle. Some have reported that there was an active attempt to shutdown the occupation by student leaders who saw the occupation as too radical.
The actions of the 19th inspired many to redouble their efforts the next day. On the 20th, occupations were still underway at UCSC (both Kresge and Kerr Hall), and students at UC Berkeley occupied Wheeler Hall (left). Each of these occupations had profound public support, with the Wheeler Hall occupation mobilizing up to two thousand supporters outside at its peak(right). The students occupying Kerr Hall released a list of thirty-five demands including a repeal of the tuition hike, a stopping of all construction projects, and amnesty for all the occupiers along including a list of eleven long term demands. In a blog named Anti-Capital Projects, students who participate in the UCSC occupations called attention to the regents approval of massive financing for construction projects while also increasing costs and lowering quality of the education they provide for students. Supplementing these UCSC occupations were rallies and solidarity protests on their campus, videos available online. Students at Napa Valley College announced that they will be organizing a camp-out in solidarity starting November 30th going until the end of the semester. UC Davis students held a rally at 11am that turned out 150 people despite rainy weather. Students also occupy Dutton Hall on the UCD campus and hold it for over five hours. Students at CSU Fresno take control of their library of their library at 5pm, keeping it open twenty-four hours in protest of the reductions in operating hours arising from budget cuts.
The ongoing occupation by students at UCSC in Kerr Hall until Sunday, the 22nd, after campus police shut down the campus to visitors as well as shutdown the wireless network to create a media blackout zone before they violently entered Kerr Hall (picture at left shows a student who was struckl with a baton in the ribs). During the altercation, a faculty member fell from a balcony, who was taken away in an ambulance. Police entered the building swinging clubs at students and offered them the opportunity to leave peacefully one-by-one to be arrested. Students outright refused and the police backed off, allowing them to leave through a rear entrance with no arrest. Students left and joined the occupation that is still going on at Kresge Town Hall. Many students had their belongings seized by police, with no notice when they are to be returned at this point.
Wheeler Hall remained occupied until around 9PM when the student occupiers were arrested and released with citations for trespassing. Several reports of police violence are coming out, including a student whose fingers were smashed. Many reports are indicating use of tasers targeting people of color, especially black men, rampant usage of batons in several cases resulting in severely beaten students, and the use of steel barricades as battering rams against the crowds that had gathered (right). Reports of taser use and baton assaults have been coming in from the four major campuses (UCLA, UCB, UCD, UCSC - Pohto at left shows Police tasering a student protester). Multiple videos and photographs are available online that document these unprovoked assaults. There are no reports saying that students initiated any violence or that they were agitated into violent activity by the police. The response of the police is common crowd control technique designed to protect the property and resources of the university. Videos can be found all over Youtube, a good SF Chronicle article questioning police violence here. In response to this violence, one-hundred fifty students occupied the UC Office of the President (UCOP) on Monday the 23rd. The occupation of the office in Oakland ended peacefully with no arrests by 6PM that night.
“My comrade … had her hand destroyed by a police baton. She put it on a police barricade. The cop smashed it once, she couldn't let go. He hit it again, so that one section and multiple fingers held by a thread of flesh. She had to have reconstructive surgery and spen[t] the day in the hospital. A friend of a friend was the one shot with the rubber bullet. I saw others beaten. One of them a very close friend and comrade. I was nearly trampled. If the crowd hadn't surged forward together, it would have sucked.” – Anonymous Student Interviewed by the Writer
On Tuesday, November 24th, students on the campus of UC Irvine organized a rally and march around campus in solidarity with previous actions and against the 32% tuition hike (right). Long thought of as the most apathetic campus in the UC system, students at UC Irvine drew out an estimated one-thousand students according to reports that are still coming in. They met and rallied outside of their administration building holding signs saying “Screw 32!” and chanting “We want Drake!” the chancellor of the UCI campus. There were reports that police were carrying handguns and had used pepper spray on several students, though no taser use was reported.
Students at UC Davis organized a protest at the administration’s infosession regarding the tuition hikes. On the 24th, seventy students reoccupied Mrak Hall, leaving the doors open and presenting a list of demands to the administration that included amnesty for those arrested on the 19th, halting of on campus construction, and the restoration of lost jobs along with several other demands. Students reached a provisional agreement and were free to go without incident.
Reports of protests and actions are still coming in, and organizing is expected to continue on campuses throughout California. Students are looking forward to March 4th as the second statewide day of action against cuts, with the prospects of these actions expanding beyond the university system. Students and youth throughout the country continue to be inspired by the new developments as they come out. Among all these protests also were a considerable amount of educational events, organizing meetings, and an affluence of discussion on the future of student organizing.
Capitalist Crisis, Neoliberal University
What makes these actions significant is their context. Since the crisis began in 2007 with the collapse of Countrywide Home Loans and the collapse of the housing bubble (left), people have been struggling with job losses, foreclosures, reduction of work hours and pay, and inadequate healthcare system, and lack of support from a largely dismantled social system originally designed to soften these effects. Students have been struggling with debt, a general decrease in the quality of education, an increase in class sizes and a “neoliberalization” of their schools. Neoliberalism is the driving force behind the privatization of public schools. the Liberal Market reforms of the past thirty years have contributed a significant measure to the state of public education. Neoliberal reforms are desinged to take the tax burden off the rich and urge states to reduce spending. This has resulted in smaller state budgets and massive cuts over the past thirty years in state funding of education. Many schools have started to search out more private funds in order to finance the university because of this. These effects are designed by the economic system. When a state reduces its aid it forces universities to seek private funding, making them search for greater levels of privitization. One of the calls for actions on the campus of UC Berkeley calls on students to think of student debt as exploitation, as a reduction of future wages and directly names neoliberalism as the critical contributor to growing student debt. When state aid for students disappears, they are forced to take out private loans with higher interest rates leading to a massive cycle of debt that many struggle to escape from.
As I write this from my home in Connecticut, teachers in public schools are struggling with adjusting to the loss of 1500 of their coworkers, many of them having to take on more work and more hours at reduced pay. Staff workers (secretaries, janitors, dining hall workers) have also been hit hard. Many have seen their colleagues fired while the work has stayed the same. These conditions result from restructuring designed to decrease budgets and conserve fiancé during the crisis. They can also be seen as a test of how much they can cut from the budget. These cuts and firings have resulted in massive fear in the workplace, leading workers to take on more work as an appeal to the bosses to keep them employed. This inherently drives up productivity, but it comes at a heavy cost. This is a trend that is consistent nationally. Productivity jumped 9.5 percent in September 2009 (right). This jump was created by speed-ups and work increases while cutting back on paid work hours. Many in salaried positions have been working longer hours and doing more work, but getting paid the same. This increase in productivity is seen by Wall Street as beneficial to the markets as they struggle to gain more than stagnant numbers after the recent financial recovery.
Neoliberalism established all of the conditions that led to an economic crisis after the collapse of the housing market. Neoliberal economics had loosened bank regulations, made it easier to offer adjustable rate mortgages, removed a lot of financial regulation from the market, attacked social support systems and labor unions, led to a general decrease of wages, and an over use of a credit system which drove the American consumption that was crucial to maintaining profit rates. After the collapse, instead of taking the Keynesian path of restoring consumption by establishing government projects and supports and using government spending to restart previous rates of consumption, the long time followers of failed neoliberal policy instead chose to offer Keynesian strategies to the ruling class (left). Governments around the world offered recovery packages to businesses totaling twenty trillion dollars, almost all of which simply handed the money over to private enterprise. These projects have been successful in halting the financial collapse, but have not provided any solution to the crisis. Capitalism is driven by consumption and as businesses use the resources they gained through government bailouts on acquisitions and financial investments, not on creating jobs, there will be no significant recovery for US consumers. As long as we are in this jobless recovery, consumers will not be able to return to previous levels of consumption, leading to a period of stagnant job growth and an elongated depression not necessarily marked by the tickers on Wall Street.
State Budget Crises
Many of the budget cuts are arising now that there has been significant finance stabilization. Local, state, and national governments have redoubled their efforts to cut spending in order to balance budgets. The state of California, the world’s tenth largest economy according to the 2007 CIA fact book, was a leader in this aspect. Governor Schwarzenegger (right) announced that California had reached an agreement on cutting spending to make up for a $26 billion dollar budget gap by making massive spending cuts. These cuts effected the UC system totaling an $813 million dollar loss in state funding as the state cut its higher education budget by $2.8 billion. These cuts also hit public schools, which could certainly result in some significant organic resistance movements in the future. Cuts of this magnitude have not been seen anywhere else, and the response of the UC administration was to raise tuition fees for students who were already struggling instead of halting the $1.35 billion dollars slated to be used on construction projects.
“Yudoff receives $850,000 for a salary. $10,000 in rent (also out of our tuition). They're constructing a brand new football stadium, among other multi-million-dollar projects. Our nuclear installations, which produced every nuclear weapon the US has ever used (plutonium was discovered on-campus), have yet to be so much as threatened with a whisper of a budget cut. The money is here. It's just all been pledged as collateral for private investments, construction, etc.” – Anon Student interviewed by the Writer
These conditions make California the front line of resistance to the economic crisis and budget cuts to education. It is expected that as the crisis continues and unemployment continues to rise, that other states will take on similar strategies for balancing their budgets. But before we get to there, those of us who are serious about organizing resistance to the economic crisis can learn some serious lessons from the recent actions across California. What made these demonstrations so successful? What made the occupations in California successful and empowering compared with past occupations? What kind of lessons can we learn from these actions and how they measured success? And as we address these questions and observe the current national student formations, we must also ask what would national student organizing against the economic crisis look like and how would it achieve victories like those in California?
As time moves forward, I would expect a diversity of answers on all of these questions, but in my reading of the events in California this past week, there has been one thing that has made these actions so successful. These actions have had a mass character and nature that has defined them as the most significant student actions this year, if not this decade. The high level of serious coalition work that went into these recent actions was responsible for defining the character of the actions. Because forces began work in a spirit of solidarity, organized for mass actions, kept a focus on solidarity and unity in action, as well as respected the level of political diversity that arises out of any project like this, not only were there strong showings of students protesting throughout the state, but strong showings in support of escalated tactics and strong unity between faculty, union Rank and File workers, and students regardless of the conditions. Despite the police violence and the strong stance the administrations have taken against these actions, the sense of solidarity and unity in action has not shown any significant breaks. On September 24th, when five-thousand students and workers rallied on Sproul Plaza on the UCB campus and students across the state engaged in strikes, walkouts, and occupations, many were inspired. These recent actions have not only achieved the successes of previous work, but have far surpassed them in their level of discussion, solidarity, broadness, and ability to mobilize students to support escalated tactics.
“I think the student-worker alliance is key. I wouldn't see the movement as quite legitimate without directly and heavily involving workers and we've been strident in including their demands with ours. There will be no student victory without a workers' victory. Neither would we accept less. And thankfully I feel people have become very conscious of that.” – Anon Student Interviewed by the Writer
Prioritizing mass action
These actions are also defined in their character and goals. Throughout the organizing that has occurred there is a common trend to be focused on the masses. Unlike past occupations in New York City, these actions were focused on organizing actions that were able to bring the masses into the streets. Though forces could have called for an occupations movement immediately at the start of the semester, forces generally held off until they could achieve a level of organizing that would result in mass support and solidarity with escalated tactics. Though students at UCSC did have an occupation at the beginning of the semester that did achieve some success, it fails in comparison to the recent actions that have coalesced and empower forces on a level that is far beyond past actions during the recent crisis. Most significant is the way they measured success. Unlike past occupations that seemed to measure success in having a very radical political line, acting outside of a mass movement, and measured their success in the number of groups from other countries who expressed solidarity in support of their work, these actions measured success in masses. Statements coming from several student participants have demonstrated this.
“I’ll say this was a huge success. It’s the beginning of a new student movement.” – Andrew Barlow UCB Sociology Professor
“I feel like we really mobilized people. Not all gains are material.” – Ianna Owen Participant in the UCB Occupation
“Action has galvanized and radicalized a significant body of students and workers from all cultural spectrums to a degree I honestly dared not hope for. I thought it would happen, but could not have envisioned it broadening and deepening in militancy to this extent.” – Anon Student Interviewed by the Writer
“What we did in there doesn’t compare to what you did out here, “ said one of the student occupiers to the crowd gathered at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall following the occupation. “What you did out here blew what we did away. Whatever you did today, don’t stop doing it. It got people out of this building.” Different from past occupations that refused to form any list of demands, these occupations realized the benefits that can come out of forging a unified list of demands. Engaging in this process can bring political forces together and create a movement that build agency among its participants, which in turn can make it attractive to new participants as it can provide them with space where their voice can be heard. Movements that have refused to do this in the US have had trouble organizing numbers beyond a few hundred people. A refusal to participate in this process means that the movement devalues the individual voice by making it insignificant to the larger goal set forward by the leadership that is often small and sectarian. Certainly this was exemplified in the second New School occupation which ended disastrously and alienated a large swath of previously committed activists.
But what was most critical was how the movement related to demands. They did not make them the end goal of the movement which would only lead down a path that would result in co-optation by the administration; instead they related to them as points of unity. Students knew that these demands would not be met and were realistic. They made demands that would connect with students who are being exposed to the movement for the first time. When occupation after occupation and action after action ended without and concrete demands being conceded from the administration, students weren’t disheartened, they were emboldened. What emboldened them was not the radical nature of their demands, not the radical nature of their actions, slogans, or signs, but the masses. In previous struggles, predominantly guided by the slogan Demand Nothing, Occupy Everything refused to formulate any list of demands despite possibilities in forming unity around them. This is very much the opposite of the progressive-liberal political perspective that leads movements to the graveyard by making the list of demands the measure of success and the end game of all organizing.
As we look forward to national student organizing against the economic crisis, aiming to build broad coalitions to participate in protracted struggles, we must learn the lessons given to us by the actions in California. They measured success by the number of people they could organize, not the radical nature of their actions. They recognized the importance of building strong bonds of solidarity between union rank and filers, different political tendencies, and new people. They also based their work in a mass focus organizing in ways to turn out and attract broad new layers to the movement.
Looking back at the past week of events in California, we must also look at the state of national student organizing and begin to think about what national student organizing against the economic crisis would look like. Students for a Democratic Society has largely failed at organizing large numbers of students, the Campus Anti-War Network is struggling with its own internal problems, United Students Against Sweatshops has achieved marginal success and seems to not be as prominent as it once was, and few other national organizations have shown an ability to engage large numbers of students. What is needed is a broad student coalition that can bring together these forces as well as forces that have yet to be solidified into a broad student movement that can begin to approach the seriousness and organizing capacity that was present in the 60s.
California has given us a concrete and successful model that we can use to rebuild a united and powerful student movement here in the US. If we want to reach the levels of resistance that did exist at a time and that may be required to turn this crisis around and achieve some serious victories, we will need to continually need to go back to the events of this past week. We need to learn from what they have told us, what they have shown us, and what they tell us about the future of a student/youth movement. We have witnessed an event that could be a powder-keg moment to a national student/youth struggle against the crisis, something that could inspire broad strokes of society to mobilize in opposition to business as usual. In order to win, we must continue to go back to Cali and learn from their struggle.
“They all emphasize that this must be a beginning, and not an end. It was the spark and they want to see an explosion. The masses echo that. I echo that. I hear it every day on campus. The workers and students are generally, in my experience, about a step ahead of the Assembly in their radicalism at any given point. This isn't over. That's the occupiers' message, as I understand it.” – Anon Student interviewed by the Writer